This Week in Literary History: Feb. 1-7
Recognizing the birthdays of Langston Hughes, James Joyce, and more
Welcome to a new week, a new month, and a new issue of This Week in Literary History, covering Feb. 1-7. And happy Black History Month!
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The Story of How Langston Hughes Went From an Unknown Eighth-Grade Boy to Legendary Poet
By Emily Quiles
In late Oct. 1914, Langston Hughes moved from Lawrence, Kan., to live with his mother, Carrie, in Lincoln, Ill. During his first day of eighth grade, already four weeks into the school year, “the teacher was explaining the duties of class officers,” recalled Hughes, speaking to UCLA’s Communications Studies Department in 1967. The class was to hold an election the following day.
“The president needs to know how to run meetings,” his teacher explained to the class. “The secretary needs to know how to write.” She then got to the duties of the class poet, “a poet must have rhythm.” The class poet was to recite their poem at graduation next year.
On his way home from school that day, Hughes spoke with the only other Black student in his class. “We don’t have to worry about the election,” the female student said to Hughes. “They never let colored people into these schools anyways. This is a prejudiced little town.”
“Well she was just about right,” Hughes told his UCLA audience, going on to explain the unequal treatment of African-Americans in the 20th century, as Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation.
The next day at Hughes’s school, officers were nominated, voted on, and then elected. “Sure enough, the colored girl who’d been in the class all eight terms with the other pupils was not nominated or elected to anything. And of course, my name wasn’t mentioned,” Hughes recalled.
That was until they got to the class poet, written at the bottom of the blackboard. The students looked around at each other to see if anyone ‘looked’ like a poet. “Well you do want a class poet, don’t you?” their teacher asked.
“A little white boy got up and looked around at me and called my name,” Hughes explained. “Then the whole class said ‘I.’ That’s the way I became a poet.”
Confused as to why they elected him, Hughes remembered his teacher’s words; a poet must have rhythm. “All of my life, I have heard that most American white people think colored people have a sense of rhythm,” Hughes said. Victimized to stereotype, the young poet accepted their vote.
All winter, Hughes worked on his 16-verse poem. “When I read it at graduation, teachers, parents, students, everybody, applauded very loudly,” Hughes remembered. The first applause he’d ever received mounted greatly in Hughes’s formative memories of becoming a poet. “I was so pleased by that applause that ever since then, I just kept on writing and reading poetry.”
Influenced by his mother and grandmother’s love for books, Hughes took to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s lyrical singing and the free verses of Carl Sanberg.
At 18, Hughes moved to Mexico to live with his father, who promised to send the young man to college. While on a train to Mexico City, Hughes wrote the free verse poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” on the back of an envelope. That poem was published in 1921, a harbinger of Hughes’s future success.
When Hughes arrived in Mexico City, he learned his father, whom he hadn’t seen in 12 years, had planned his son’s entire life. Hughes’s father told his son that he wanted him to go to Switzerland to learn three languages and receive a mining engineering degree. Hughes had a different view of his future. “What I really wanted to do was to see Harlem,” Hughes said. So he persuaded his father to send him to Columbia University in New York City.
“The first place I went to was Harlem, of course,” Hughes recalled. The neighborhood was in the throes of the Harlem Renaissance, and the scenes he witnessed revived Hughes. He committed to a life of writing, telling his father that if the man disapproved of Hughes’s decision, he didn’t need to send his son any money.
“It soon became evident that he didn’t approve because he didn’t send me another penny,” Hughes remembered, laughing. “I found myself in New York City with 13 dollars.”
Hughes’s commitment to poetry paid off, and he became the first African-American to sustain himself off his writing career as a poet and playwright. Among Hughes’s most noted works, “Montage of a Dream Deferred” (1951), “Mother to Son” (1922), “Harlem” (1951), exposed society’s problems through paradoxical tones and beautiful jazzy melodies.
Born on Feb. 1, 1902, in Joplin, Mo.
Died on May 22, 1967, in New York, N.Y.
James Joyce Wrote an Iconic Novel That Many of Us Still Struggle to Understand
By Andria Kennedy
"The pity is, the public will demand and find a moral in my book - or worse, they may take it in some more serious way, and on the honor of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it." James Joyce made this statement in an interview with Djuna Barnes for Vanity Fair in 1922 regarding Ulysses. Arguably, Ulysses has a reputation as one of the most challenging literature books for most people to comprehend. It rests on a pinnacle of literary mastery, trotted out by scholars to indicate their educational prowess. It's also a favorite with politicians, and when campaign season approaches, the quotes start flying.
Yet, the irony lies within the heart of Joyce's work. British politician Jeremy Corbyn summarized the obsession with Ulysses perfectly as Bloomsday approached in 2019.
"Joyce references and richly describes what's happening in the street," Corbyn said. "So somebody is holding forth about a big political issue, and then the refuse cart goes by. Whenever there is a big political issue on, I walk around the streets in my area. Politicians should never forget that people have lives to lead, and they often have dreams they don't talk about."
For all their scholarly boasting, readers often forget the book is no more than the chronicle of a single day in the life of one man - ordinary events in an everyday world.
Set in the year James Joyce left Ireland, 1904, his self-imposed exile sharpened the author's focus. Life in Dublin had lost meaning for him. It was abroad - often penniless - that Joyce honed his socialist views. It didn't hurt that he wrote during a time of academic study, when deep-coded meanings in writings came into fashion. And while Carl Jung suggested the schizophrenic pattern of Joyce's language might indicate a mental illness, Joyce thrilled at his stylized prose.
Anyone willing to sit down to discuss Ulysses or Finnegan's Wake, another Joyce novel, became a fast friend (more so if they were willing to run errands for him or loan him money). Such discussions often stretched late into the night. As Joyce said, "I don't agree that difficult literature is necessarily so inaccessible. Of course, each intelligent reader can read and understand it - if he returns to the text again and again. He is embarking on an adventure with words."
Meditating on pieces of Ulysses a little at a time seems to hold the key to the monstrosity's understanding. "Read a little bit at a time and think about it and then move on, but don't beat yourself up if you don't understand it," the politician Corbyn said.
It's a throwback to the original anxiety people felt over misunderstanding the complicated code held within the pages - not to mention the frustration new readers encounter. How could the details of the single day in the life of a man get so complicated? It depends on the perspective you choose to bring to the table.
In 1934, Vanity Fair published a parody titled "The People's Joyce." It listed six socially-acceptable remarks for people to make at formal dinners in regards to the novel. Rather than assisting the public in understanding James Joyce's book, the article focused on projecting the proper level of "enlightenment" and education. Meanwhile, Joyce sat back, shaking his head over readers' stumbling search for hidden meanings and morals. He set out to shock the general public and challenge the intellects of the age. To look for a grander purpose amused him.
Djuna Barnes saw through Joyce's mysteriously coded prose, though. In her time with the man - not the novel - she pinpointed the truth. And she summed him up in her interview perfectly. "However it is with him, he will come away for the evening, for he is simple, a scholar, and sees nothing objectionable in human beings if they will only remain in place."
Born on Feb. 2, 1882, in Rathgar, Ireland
Died on Jan. 13, 1941, in Zürich, Switzerland
James A. Michener Shrugged Off His Haters and Producing Bestseller After Bestseller
By Christine Kingery
James A. Michener was a pioneer of the historical novel. He is best known for vastly-sweeping stories detailing the grandest of scales the histories of such places as Texas, Hawaii, Israel, Poland, South Africa, and Alaska, often by titles of those same names.
Michener found his stride in epic storytelling with the publication of Hawaii in 1959, going on to write another 19 epic novels featuring everything from the geologic formation of a place to political and social movements, all the while following generations of families who lived on the land. Michener’s books are synonymous with novels that are lengthy and verbose.
Michener took a thorough, often scientific, centuries-long approach to each of his books. Factoring in how many books he wrote, their different geographies, and the quick turnaround time of producing each novel (usually one to three years), readers are often left wondering, as I have, How, exactly did he do it?
For starters, Michener’s process evolved throughout his career. He fine-tuned his method to one that worked best for him, especially as he aged.
Michener’s first geo-historical book, Hawaii, was birthed as Michener and his first wife lived in Hawaii. At the time, 52 years old, he was no stranger to travel. “As a kid of 14, I bummed across the country on nickels and dimes,” Michener recalled. “Before I was 20, I had seen all the states but Washington, Oregon, and Florida. I had an insatiable love of hearing people tell stories, and what they didn’t tell I made up.”
Whenever Michener began writing a new book, he and his wife moved to that locale to experience the place first-hand. This step was the first element of his process that he homed in on while writing Hawaii, and he continued the practice for the rest of his life. Michener didn’t just sit in an office. He traveled the countryside, speaking to people who lived there. Michener used this method for all his books, taking bits of stories from verbal histories and textbooks. As one of his assistants explained, on one particular road trip, Michener “went into a house and talked to this elderly Black woman. He not only got detailed directions but three generations of her family history.”
Michener’s works were instant successes, including those books that came before his larger novels. He wrote his first book, Tales of the South Pacific, when he was in his 30s and serving in the Navy during World War II. The book won a Pulitzer Prize and became the Broadway play and hit movie, “South Pacific.” Michener’s fame brought money and success, and he often cashed in on that success by capitalizing on social networks and research assistance to facilitate his writing process.
As Michener aged, he began to rely more heavily on additional help for his books’ research portion. He started simply by consulting with experts, but as the years progressed, he hired them instead. “The fact is that Michener employed a bunch of research assistants over the years,” wrote author Tony Daniel. “Some of them were just that, but others were accomplished writers or editors in their own right who, at times, wrote some first draft sections of the books. Michener would then extensively rework these parts, putting his own touch upon them.”
When Michener started writing Texas in 1981, Texas’s Governor William Clements invited the author to Texas to write the story. And the University of Texas offered Michener staff and an office to help him in the process. Michener had two history graduate students as part-time research assistants.
Michener also had the help of his longtime assistant, John Kings. Kings first began working with Michener on Centennial in the early 1970s and remained a full-time staff member for more than 20 years. Kings edited Michener’s works in addition to organizing trips, driving Michener’s car, running the office, and fielding requests.
“Kings anticipates Michener’s moods as well as his literary style, shares his workaholic attitude, identifies with him so much that when a luncheon host apologizes for having a buffet rather than a served meal, Kings answers for both of them: ‘There’s nothing we like more than a buffet,’” critic Caryn James wrote in The New York Times in 1985.
Michener wasn’t shy about leveraging his influence. “I just drop a hint that I want to know how the building of Houston is financed, and the first thing you know, eight people fly up here, or I fly down there, and we have a seminar for a weekend and talk,” Michener said. One example of the assistance others gave Michener was when longhorn breeder H.C. Carter lent the author a private plane while he worked on Texas.
Regardless of how much help Michener had in researching his books, weaving the story was all up to him. Critics and bibliophiles heavily criticized Michener during his lifetime. They took issue with his story’s straightforward, disimpassioned narration and his use of outside aid while writing his books. Yet, despite significant help, Michener’s name was on the book’s cover, with those who researched and ghostwrote allocated to an accolade inside the novel.
Michener didn’t care about the criticism. He knew that his style and method worked; he had book sales to verify his effectiveness. With his books topping bestseller lists in the 1970s and 1980s and a vast mountain of wealth that came with that success, Michener shrugged off the haters and kept on writing. “Why should I worry that one person didn’t like it when five million people did?” Michener quipped.
James A. Michener
Born on Feb. 3, 1907, in Doylestown, Pa.
Died on Oct. 16, 1997, in Austin, Texas
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“Langston Hughes Speaking at UCLA.” Langston Hughes. UCLA Communications Studies Department. Feb. 16, 1967.
“Langston Hughes: poetry and discussion.” Langston Hughes. Youtube. Posted on March 4, 2018.
“The Elusive Langston Hughes.” Hilton Als. The New Yorker. Feb. 16, 2015.
"The Weary Blues." Langston Hughes. CBUT. 1958.
"Djuna Barnes Interviews James Joyce in 1922: The Iconic Irishman's Most Significant Interview." Maria Popova. Brain Pickings. March 17, 2014.
"James Joyce: A Portrait of a Man Who is, at Present, One of the More Significant Figures in Literature." Djuna Barnes. Vanity Fair. March 1922.
"Jeremy Corbyn on Joyce's Ulysses: 'Don't Beat Yourself Up if You Don't Understand It.'" Peter Carty. The Guardian. June 14, 2019.
"The Politicians Who Love 'Ulysses.'" Kevin Dettmar. The New Yorker. Apr. 23, 2019.
"James Joyce: Genius, Jerk." Tim Parks. Lit Hub. June 16, 2016.
"The Game of Evenings." Michelle Woods. Granta. Apr. 1, 2005.
James A. Michener
“James Michener, Author of Novels that Sweep Through the History of Places, Is Dead.” Albin Krebs. The New York Times. Oct. 17, 1997.
“The Michener Phenomenon.” Caryn James. The New York Times. Sep. 8, 1985.
“Reconsidering the Astonishing Literary Legacy of James Michener.” Tony Daniel. The Federalist. Aug. 24, 2018.
“John Kings.” Obituary. Legacy.com.
“An Interview with James Michener.” Chris Tucker. D Magazine. September 1985.
Notable Literary Births & Events for Feb. 1- 7
1st volume of the Oxford English Dictionary is published (1884)
William Rose Benét
Thomas M. Disch
Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav
James Joyce's Ulysses is published (1922)
Alexander Selkirk is rescued from an island in the Pacific Ocean (1709), inspiring Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe
James A. Michener
Clarence E. Mulford
Joan Lowery Nixon
Caroline von Wolzogen
William Harrison Ainsworth
Luís de Camões
Pierre de Marivaux
James Fennimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans is published (1826)
K. S. Nissar Ahmed
William S. Burroughs
Johan Ludvig Runeberg
Reader's Digest publishes its first issue (1922)
John Henry Mackay
José María de Pereda
Karen Joy Fowler
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Else Lasker-Schüler's “Mein blaues Klavier” ("My Blue Piano"), is published in a Swiss newspaper (1943)